As Black History Month comes to a close, it leaves me wondering if it makes an impact. Are the messages heard? Do young people get it?
I love old time radio (OTR), and my all time favourite is Jack Benny. When Eddie Anderson was hired to play Rochester in 1937, he became the first African American to have a staring role on radio.
Though technically Rochester was Jack Benny’s valet, there was never any doubt that the character, and the actor himself, was an equal. Sharing top billing from the start, he was one of the most beloved members of the cast. I’d actually challenge that he got bigger applause and greater responses on his entrances than anyone else.
Eddie Anderson broke though more racial barriers in than any one in popular media, until Nichelle Nichols, as Lieutenant Uhura, took control of communications on Star Trek and kissed Captain Kirk.
Rochester also set the prototype for wisecracking characters to come, from The Jeffersons to Good Times to Sanford and Son to Benson to The Cosby Show to Family Matters to The Fresh Prince of Bell Air. But do people remember that? Do we give him credit for it?
But let’s get closer to home.
Here in Toronto, I’ll wager almost no one, except local historian Mike Filey, will know that most of the downtown core, including the land where City Hall now sits, was owned by a Black man, Wilson Ruffin Abbott.
Or that his son, Anderson, was the first Black man to graduate from the University of Toronto’s prestigious medical school and became the 1st Black doctor licensed in Canada. He was also a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln; and he was among those who stood vigil at the president’s deathbed.
So where’s the disconnect? Where did we lose that thread of our history and more importantly, why aren’t we being reminded?